Wednesday, March 31, 2010

In review--Gutsy, Raw and Adventurous Impressions

Dante String Quartet with Simon Crawford-Phillips
Debussy String Quartet
Ravel String Quartet and Violin Sonata
Hyperion/Harmonia Mundi

In 2000 or 2001 when I was reviewing cinema, I checked out the film, Un Coeur en Hiver (A Heart in Winter) by Claude Sautet from the library. While the love story in the film portrayed by French actors Daniel Auteuil and Emmanuelle Beart felt cold and philosophical to me, the music by Ravel struck a chord. Unfortunately, I did not think of writing down the soundtrack information and I ended up checking out every Ravel recording from the library in search of the music. To make a long story short, I finally found the music on Dante String Quartet’s Debussy String Quartet/Ravel String Quartet and Violin Sonata.

And I finally found a Ravel and Debussy recording where the musicians perform all the movements of the compositions. I heard only one movement of Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor, Assez vif et bien rythm√® and single movements of the Ravel pieces performed on previous recordings so this new recording is a real treat. The Dante Quartet (Krysia Osostowicz-violin, Giles Francis-violin, Judith Busbridge-viola and Bernard Gregor-Smith-cello) and joined by pianist Simon Crawford-Phillips on the Ravel sonata, play these French Impressionist music classics for all their worth.

The liner notes mention that during Debussy’s and Ravel’s heyday, young composers did not compose string quartets. And the composers who did try their hand at string quartets were long established and over 60 years old. Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor attracted its share of detractors including fellow composer Chausson.  They considered the adventurous string quartet as presumptuous But Debussy, and his younger colleague Ravel, thumbed their noses at the musical conventions of that time, especially if the conventions carried a fragrance of Romantic Era music.

The French Impressionist composers wrote for chamber musicians, though Debussy and Ravel both composed for ballets and operas, though small and elegant in scope. The string quartets, on Dante Quartet's recording certainly have those moonlit path or cherry blossoms falling gently from trees moments, but tension bubbles up from underneath and sometimes explodes into slightly strident passages. The strings whether plucked or bowed, sometimes a combination, are employed to the fullest effect. You’ll also find some colorful counterpoint and intriguing textures that leave orchestral impressions though the pieces are performed on four or five instruments when the piano is added.  Ravel was known for his ingenius orchestrations and both composers created incredible sonic environments that engaged all the senses.

While Debussy composed his string quartet in 1893, Ravel took several years to compose his violin sonata, which was composed from 1923 to 1927, ten years before Ravel would die from an experimental brain surgery. By the 1920s however, Ravel had discovered American jazz and you can hear a bluesy element in the second movement of the violin sonata. I have even heard versions where a banjo plays the first few measures of the sonata. But then Ravel was a composer with a few surprises up his dandy sleeves. Remember he employed a whip lashing the stage at the beginning of his Piano Concerto in G major.

As far as Dante Quartet’s recording, I’m honored to add this one to my collection. I feel that the quartet captured the essence and personalities of the French composers. I can also feel rawness and excitement listening to the recording. And thankfully, because the quartet played the pieces in their entirety, I finally found music I had been seeking for ten years. If only I could find the DVD of the movie again.

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